By Easton Smith
Sep 1, 2014
Nearly two years ago a group named Occupy Sandy organized an unprecedented response to the unprecedented disaster that was Hurricane Sandy. Occupy Sandy, which was sparked by a few radical activists who knew each other from Occupy Wall Street, accomplished very significant feats for any organization, let alone one that was created ad-hoc and spontaneously in the days immediately following a disaster. Occupy Sandy (OS) dispatched tens of thousands of hot meals, more than 60,000 volunteers and was in the hardest hit areas of New York City, often times before the Red Cross or FEMA arrived and after they left. The efforts of Occupy Sandy signify a qualitatively and quantitatively impressive achievement for the radical political activist community in New York City and the surrounding area and for the “Occupy” social movement more widely. This novel achievement can be an instructive reference for organizers and movement builders of all stripes.
The achievements and pitfalls of the Occupy Sandy’s tactics and strategy contain salient lessons about how to build large scale, direct-aid organizations and broad social movements in horizontal and effective ways. The ways in which Occupy Sandy interacted with the state in a crisis situation can likewise teach us valuable lessons about how to effectively organize radical projects without being co-opted, marginalized or outright repressed. The activist community in the United States as a whole, however, does not know that much about what happened in the weeks and months following the storm, and those who participated in the efforts have few resources for reflecting on and understanding the value of their work.
In order to study Occupy Sandy for its political and practical lessons we need to have resources that document the movement with its complexity and many components in tact.There are, however, very few articles, studies or papers that represent Occupy Sandy in its many dimensions, as a radical political organization, an effective direct-mutual aid organization, and a horizontally structured communications and personnel coordination network, it is difficult to find many resources. Many news articles were written about OS, but few offer more than a view of OS as a politically charged novelty. Some more critical writings have looked at the movement, but generally as an anecdotal point of reference. Interestingly, the one report that really stands out in terms of understanding OS as a movement with many component parts is a report written for the Department of Homeland Security.
While most activists would not be surprised to hear that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been following Occupy related events, many of us have been taken aback by the fact that this recent report applauds Occupy Sandy. The report was written by The Homeland Security Studies and Analysis Institute, which is a “federally funded research and development center operated by Analytic Services Inc. on behalf of the Department of Homeland Security”1. It analyzes the “success drivers” of Occupy Sandy’s work and praises the organization’s ability to train and mobilize more than 60,000 volunteers, while pointing out the limitations of and mistakes made by traditional, hierarchical organizations like the Red Cross. Its self-described aim is to “enable the government to work in a unity of effort”2 with grassroots groups like the Occupy project on which it focuses. It even goes so far as to suggest changes to DHS operations based on the positive results of the Occupy project.
It certainly didn’t look like the DHS was trying for “unity” with Occupy-like grassroots groups back in April of 2013 when memos were released that showed “daily monitoring” of the activities of the movement, presumably to counter terrorist threats3. We could see this turn-around in the organizations attitudes as a testament to the dynamic and lasting presence of the Occupy movement– that it can go from being a “public enemy” on the watch list of the state to being a role model for the essential function of taking care of the public. While this narrative is interesting for its cute twist and novelty, what the report tells us is far more important than just an ironic twist in the story of Occupy’s relationship with the state.
A close reading of the report, with its surprisingly transparent language, can tell us a lot about how grassroots groups are viewed strategically from the perspective of a state agency; about how grassroots groups can be seen as both nuisances and assets at the same time; about how different agencies have different interests in dealing with grassroots groups, and how these differences present themselves to the public, but also to the organizers on the ground. Perhaps most importantly, the report tells a story of how various arms of the state, like the DHS, are beginning to organize themselves and understand themselves in relation to people organizing on the ground and how they attempt to better dictate the terms on which the state relates to these people and their work in an increasingly disaster ridden world.
My aim in the following paper is threefold. Firstly, I hope to begin the process of reflection on the events of Occupy Sandy, as both a participant and an organizer who hopes to learn lessons and develop analysis based on our real world experiences as radicals. I believe that many of us, especially those outside of academia, have a tendency to look for the next thing, the next meme for analysis or crisis for organizing, without giving proper analytical focus to our previous endeavors. Secondly, I hope to move towards a critical and radical understanding of the relationship between social movements/radical community groups and the state in disaster situations. Thirdly, I hope to use the conversation around this understanding as a jumping off point to discuss more generalized anti-capitalist, movement building theory.
The first section of the piece focuses on the DHS report and its very revealing language, looking at how it understands OS and community based responses to disaster in general. It looks at FEMA’s stated goals and organizational approaches to disaster, and argues that the state doesn’t just seek to “smash” social movements in disaster situations, but rather tries to make them more legible by incorporating “rogue” relief efforts into its framework. The second section looks at a selection of state-agencies’ responses to Hurricane Sandy with the aim of showing the diversity of state-directed responses to disaster. I argue that in order to understand how the state co-opts and diminishes the work of non-state relief efforts we must see the state as a dynamic and contradictory entity. The third section analyzes the politics of the state’s complex response to disaster, focusing on how various wings of the state contradict each-other and how these contradictory responses actually function to reinforce the same basic framework that seeks to maintain government legitimacy. In the fourth section we see how these politics were discussed and dealt within the Occupy Sandy movement. Finally, I conclude by stringing the various threads of the previous sections together to argue that social movements need to understand the strategy of the state and their relation to it in order to organize effectively.
I. Seeing Like a (Smart) State
As ironic as it may be, the fact that the Department of Homeland Security went from sending internal memos about its “daily” monitoring of Occupy movement to releasing lengthy reports about the successes of an Occupy project does not represent a shift of attitude towards radical groups from the department, let alone the state as a whole. This shift in the DHS only shows that various arms of the state conduct complex, evolving analyses of Occupy projects’ and other grassroots groups’ work and that these analyses contain a multitude of understandings of this work from different perspectives. It shows that the “state” is more complex, and more strategic, than we often claim.
While it may be easy (especially for us activists who pay attention to the constant, and often very thinly veiled, state repression of political dissent in this country) to see the state as a monolithic and totalized entity, which smashes social movements because they threaten the order of the racist-capitalist-patriarchy, this narrative does not hold up to the reality. In a recent, intriguing 3-part series on “disaster communism,” the authors (who write under the collective name “Out of the Woods”) claim that while “the state sees localised self-organisation, collaboration and mutual aid as a threat to be crushed…a smart state has more options than just repression”4. The authors cite the DHS report as an example of how a “smart” state can benefit from social movements taking charge in a disaster situation. The DHS report confirms this thesis and shows a far more complex understanding of social movements than a standard “repression” narrative would allow.
The report systematically and thoroughly dissects the operations of Occupy Sandy in over 100 pages and uses first hand interviews from participants in OS and other relief organizations. Every important structural component of OS as a relief effort is clearly laid out from its origins in the communications and social networks of OWS to its governance structure and volunteer orientation process. From my research, the report stands out as the most comprehensive and well-researched history of Occupy Sandy’s disaster relief efforts (the social impact of Occupy Sandy has been documented in great projects like Sandy Storyline, and in first hand accounts) that exists. The goal of this report is clearly to understand the movement enough to engage with it, to “integrate” it, not just disrupt or repress it. The reports conclusions make this clear.
The first of four major conclusions listed in the report concerning the “limitations of traditional relief efforts” is that “emergent grassroots entities, such as Occupy Sandy, were not sufficiently integrated into FEMA’s Whole Community approach”5. According to its own documents, FEMA’s “Whole Community approach” is “an approach to emergency management that reinforces the fact that FEMA is only one part of our nation’s emergency management team; that we must leverage all of the resources of our collective team in preparing for, protecting against, responding to, recovering from and mitigating against all hazards; and that collectively we must meet the needs of the entire community in each of these areas”6. According to this framework of disaster relief, the state is not the only provider of disaster relief, and is, in fact, wholly incapable of filling that role on its own. This framework sees the state as only one actor in a “collective team”. It is not clear, however, how this “team” actually functions as a team.
FEMA’s language toutes words like “collective,” and “whole community” but they are tellingly quiet on any substantive discussion about how these teams and collectives operate. The “strategic themes” listed in FEMA’s publication, “A Whole Community Approach to Emergency Management: Principles, Themes, and Pathways for Action” are listed as: “understand community complexity, recognize community capabilities and needs, foster relationships with community leaders, build and maintain partnerships, empower local action, leverage and strengthen social infrastructure, networks, and assets”7. None of these “strategic themes” mention anything about creating governance structures in disaster situations, or about how power will actually be shared within a “team”. Rather, these “themes” show an approach that aims to see the complexity of communities, and create resource and information sharing networks and coordinate relief efforts on the ground, all without fundamentally shifting power from state agencies into the hands of the community, or “team”.
All of this coordination will potentially aid in some efforts to distribute goods or locate disaster victims, but it also clearly aids the state in creating a more “legible” populace. In his book, “Seeing Like a State,” author James C. Scott outlines a number of tactics used by states historically to deal with the fact that things such as “local practices of measurement and landholding were “illegible” to the state in their raw form. They exhibited a diversity and intricacy that reflected a great variety of purely local, not state, interests. That is to say, they could not be assimilated into an administrative grid without being either transformed or reduced to a convenient, if partly fictional, shorthand”8. In other words, the state, as an entity abstracted from the everyday life of the people within its borders, could not exercise power as it liked because it was unable to “read” their ways of organization. Scott gives many examples of mechanisms that states have historically used to create legibility, including the standardization of weights and measures, the creation of permanent last names, and the use of architecture in cities. A “Whole Community” is definitely more legible from a state agency point of view when they are all in one room, on one “team”.
The DHS report on Occupy Sandy can give us some insight into why the state may fear a lack of legibility. There is an ominous tone as it warns of a “rising public distrust of hierarchical institutions…in many communities within the United States today”9. The report also warns that “it would not be unusual for horizontal grassroots disaster relief networks with strong affiliations within certain communities to be chosen over professional response organizations that might try to assert control over a complex operating environment in a disaster”10. There is a clear indication here that the DHS fears losing its authority in the wake of a disaster. A very telling line reads, “as the importance and frequency of horizontal group engagements grows, it is increasingly important for unity of effort to build in order to deepen bridges between hierarchical institutions and emergent response groups” (italics mine)11. There is a clear assumption that projects like OS are more and more on the rise, but it is less clear why this implies an “increasing importance” of “unity of effort”.
It is only from the perspective of the state that an increase in grassroots responses to disaster necessarily implies a needed increase in “unity”. In fear of losing its control over local organization and its ability to “read” its own peoples’ forms of organization, the state opts for unity, and leverages its historical legitimacy to bring groups together. The report claims that “there is a common view that government generally has the lead on response and recovery efforts” and that “emergent response group[s’]…efforts may become sidelined or marginalized if they are not recognized by the state and the federal government”12. While the 60,000 volunteers who worked with Occupy Sandy may speak differently to the question of government recognition, it is clear that the DHS sees its legitimacy as a powerful bargaining chip to bring grassroots groups to the table.
The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, signed into law in 1988, gives FEMA the authority to coordinate government wide relief efforts and is “designed to bring an orderly and systemic means of federal natural disaster assistance for state and local governments in carrying out their responsibilities to aid citizens”13. Threats to this “orderly and systemic” operation are taken seriously. The DHS report shows that from the perspective of a state agency, Occupy Sandy is part of an inevitable and increasingly powerful wave of response to disasters, which it fears could attract a population wary of an overly intrusive government and increasingly interested in community-driven, horizontal forms of organization. In response, the state wants to both make sure that it can understand the ecology of disaster response operations as people organize themselves, while at the same time maintaining some control over them. The report reflects these ideas, but does not go so far as to outline how various apparati of the state function to enact a strategy of “integration”.
While outlining a broad strategy, the DHS report and FEMA’s “Whole Community” programs do not represent marching orders that can or would be followed uniformly by the myriad city, state and federal agencies that work in disaster relief operations. The strategy reflected in the report is enacted ad-hoc, knowingly or unknowingly, by numerous agencies that often have conflicting interests and their own internal needs and strategies. A short overview of the diversity of responses from state agencies in the wake of Hurricane Sandy will show how complex the state’s response to disaster is in actuality.
II. The Diversity of State Responses to Disaster
In their Disaster Communism series the authors look at Occupy Sandy and the DHS report and claim that “since self-organised disaster communities are more effective than state agencies and market forces and responding to disasters, the state can simply sit back and let people suffer, then reassert itself when the community dissipates as normality returns. This is the state’s interest in ‘resilience’, exposing proletarians to disaster, abandoning them to survive by their own efforts, and then moving in with the ‘disaster capitalism’ of reconstruction and gentrification once the moment of disaster has passed”14. This dire assessment of the state’s interests and roles in disaster relief is not uncommon in radical circles, or among survivors of disasters like Sandy and Katrina. But in reality the state does not “simply sit back and let people suffer, then reassert itself when community dissipates as normality returns”. As the case of Hurricane Sandy shows, the state responds with much more complex and at times contradictory actions in the wake of a disaster.
Major disasters cause disruption in every facet of urban life, and in almost every state agency. In such a situation, there cannot be just one response, but a whole series of responses from many different specialized parts of society, many of which are not state-controlled. Much of the burden of immediate disaster recovery does not actually fall on state agencies, but rather on private corporations, like Con Edison, and non-governmental relief organizations like the Red Cross. The state’s response is less concentrated in immediate disaster related aid like medical services and food supply than often believed, and more in law enforcement, emergency services, monitoring and in longer-term recovery aid, like FEMA sponsored loans. An overview of just some of these responses from the state in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy can demonstrate the diversity of agencies acting, and their differing motives and effectiveness in response.
The Metropolitan Transport Authority (MTA) is a New York State Public Agency, and services more than 8.5 million riders every day. The MTA’s subway system operates in all 5 of the city’s boroughs and its regional rail lines extend into the counties north of the city; a significant portion of their operations were extensively damaged in the storm, with entire regions of regional track flooded out along the Hudson River and subway tunnels throughout Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan totally flooded15. Despite this incredible damage, the agency managed to get busses running in all five boroughs in less than a week, even as subway and car tunnels remained flooded. Most of the subway system was drained within a week, with a few lines remaining closed for months16. Much of this quick and effective recovery was made possible by the agency’s pro-active approach to the storm–closing down the subway system early, and doing last-minute construction projects like a make-shift dam built in a part of the Harlem subway which saved much of upper Manhattan’s system.
Like transportation, housing is essential infrastructure in any city. The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) operates more than 300 public housing developments, in which more than 400,000 people live throughout the 5 boroughs. Many of these developments were in the hardest hit areas like Coney Island, the Rockaways, Red Hook and Lower Manhattan. The response from NYCHA was far slower and less adequate than the MTA.
Hurricane Sandy knocked out power to more than 400 NYCHA buildings and flood damage, with its accompanying problems of mold, was extensive in many housing projects17. Many elderly people who did not evacuate from their high-rise project buildings were left stranded with no elevators, and often times without sufficient food or life saving medication. According to a comprehensive survey done by community based organizations, 30% of survey respondents in NYCHA housing were without electricity, hot water, heat, or elevators for 3 weeks, with some reporting that they were without those necessities for 12 weeks (See the report: Weathering the Storm)18. With a backlog of 330,000 repairs to do, the damage done to NYCHA buildings and units was in many cases an exacerbation of existing problems, and the feeling of abandonment an already salient one.
The state response to disaster obviously goes much further than just these essential infrastructure needs. 12,000 National Guard personnel were activated to assist in the recovery, doing a whole array of jobs from food and water distribution to traffic control and power generation support. The volunteer force of the New York Guard was also deployed, ensuring that large scale equipment, like generators, was delivered to affected areas19. And, of course, the state response also included a response from FEMA.
In a disaster FEMA is less “on the ground” than many people assume–their role in disasters is more to provide financial assistance and regional coordination than personnel to be doing things like mucking out buildings or giving out meals. The agency provides grants, loans and other aid to homeowners with its “individual assistance” and businesses and other agencies with its “public assistance”. In the case of Sandy, FEMA faced the challenge of responding to a disaster that spanned multiple states, affecting millions of people and multiple major cities.
FEMA was criticized by a wide array of civil society, from NYCHA residents to mayors and governors, in the initial days after the storm. This frustration prompted President Obama to order the agency to cut through red tape, saying “what I told the governers and mayors is what I’ve been saying to my team since the start of this event, and that is we don’t have any patience for bureaucracy, we don’t have any patience for red tape, and we want to make sure that we are figuring out a way to get to yes, as opposed to no”20. Yet in much of New York City residents continued to be confused and upset by FEMA’s complicated systems of disaster aid distribution.
Many people who applied for aid never received any at all. One report of NYCHA residents found that while 56 percent of those surveyed applied for government assistance, almost half of those people (47 percent) did not receive any whatsoever. Even those who did receive aid often found that it meant taking on debt21. Another report issued by the group “Strike Debt” states, “the common complaints about FEMA’s response as both slow and inadequate are due to the agency’s focus on distributing the costs of disaster to individual victims based on and through their ability to take on debt, rather than distributing the costs across the public. The focus on lending moves money from the victims of disaster into the hands of the loan servicers who make $1 billion in profit annually off of these loans”22. FEMA’s response may not have been particularly helpful for some of New York’s most affected populations, but it also did not simply “sit back” in the wake of the disaster.
As this brief and incomplete overview of some of the many state agency’s responses to Sandy shows, disaster relief encompasses many different moving pieces from many different parties. This complex response is full of contending agendas and disparate understandings of how disaster relief should be done. NYCHA may continue its trend of being the state-sponsored slum lord, even while the MTA pulls out all the stops to get people moving again. This complex dynamic of relief work obviously causes, and is affected by, the actions and attitudes of elected officials and state bureaucrats charged with responding to the disaster.
III. Mainstream Politics and State Legitimacy in the Wake of Sandy
As the many state agencies play their various roles in disaster relief the politics of issues like how money is spent and who gets to decide what recovery looks like in affected areas come to the fore. The many politicians and government representatives that get drawn into the politics of disaster relief have their differing responsibilities and opinions. However, much like the roles of the various agencies doing relief work on the ground, the collective response of elected politicians and government representatives works (albeit in an ad-hoc and incomplete fashion) towards a particular strategic framework of disaster response that seeks to marginalize or co-opt non-state relief efforts. A few examples of the political environment following Hurricane Sandy reveals how this functions.
Disasters are often touted as examples of when politicians from different parties and platforms can come together in the name of practicality and expediency. In New York in the wake of Sandy some of this political unity was seen. The press jumped on the story of New York City Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Andrew Cuomo working together, and even holding joint press conferences acknowledging the role of global climate change in the disaster23. But this shallow alliance did not represent any substantive or lasting agreement on policy decisions in the wake of the storm.
Within a month of Sandy’s landfall Bloomberg and Cuomo were publicly disagreeing about how Federal aid dollars should be spent. Cuomo argued for use of billions of dollars to prevent future floodings, while Bloomberg claimed such a use of funds would be unnecessary given that Sandy was a “100 year” storm24. As the Bloomberg-Cuomo pact disintegrated, another unlikely pairing emerged, with Cuomo and Republican Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie making, in their words, “a mutual, non-partisan commitment to bringing the appropriate federal aid back to our states as expeditiously as possible”25. This unlikely political bond was premised on their mutual frustration with the federal government’s lack of aid.
These alliances, falling outs, and political haggling for resources were covered extensively in the press, often times taking the place of stories about those actually affected by a disaster. As always, this attention fuels politicians drive to react, to do something, or at least seem to be. Politicians looking busy, creating alliances and having disagreements all serve to legitimize the governments response, whether it has been effective or not. To the national and international audience, political dispute indicates that politicians are paying attention and have investment in a plan of action (even if this plan is not what the audience thinks is best), when in reality the rhetoric of politicians does not necessarily translate into tangible action, results or even a presence on the ground.
The week after the storm hit, Daily Beast contributor Harry Siegel wrote about how “on television, New York City is resiliently recovering from Sandy—Billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg even fought hard against canceling the ING marathon, giving in only when its sponsors caved. The mayor has maximized his television time with frequent updates in carefully staged settings, with members of the Obama administration standing behind him and his hypnotic sign-language interpreter Lydia Callis beside him. It’s a swell sales job, part of his business-friendly, socially-liberal, post-partisan persona, that (with the help of his vast media empire), has helped him maintain his national reputation even as New Yorkers have soured on him”26. Here we can see how Bloomberg’s press presence served to give the government legitimacy in the eyes of the nation, and even in the eyes of those many New Yorkers who were not so adversely affected by the storm because of location or their privileged ability to re-locate and recover quickly. Another commentator writes, “Bloomberg, aware that the polls showed a big majority of New Yorkers approved of the administration’s response to the storm, has focused his limited criticism on flaws in preparedness and on the question of whether to build sea walls”27. For the mayors office reputation seemed to be more important than results.
However, this political pandering to the media and general public does not work in the places most affected by disaster. Around the same time as Bloomberg’s fancy press conferences and Cuomo and Christie’s bi-partisan alliance, there were numerous public outcries from disaster victims. In an unannounced trip to the Rockaways a local woman was caught on the news yelling to Bloomberg “Where’s the help? Where’s the fucking help?”28. An estimated 1,000 Local residents in Staten Island turned a FEMA coordinated town hall style meeting into a speak out to criticize the confusing and slow recovery efforts29. Rallies were organized in multiple states calling for FEMA to “Stop the Exorbitant Rise in Flood Insurance Premiums”30. These are but a few examples of what was widespread anger about the slow-pace, high-cost and confusing bureaucracy of the recovery process. It is no surprise that people in the most storm affected areas turned to other forms of organization outside state networks.
People on the ground saw aid being delivered not by the Red Cross and FEMA, but by grassroots volunteer groups, and media sources such as the New York Times were running headlines in the week after the storm like, “Where FEMA fell Short, Occupy Sandy Was There” (later the headline was changed to the more government friendly line: “Occupy Sandy: A Movement Moves to Relief”)31 and “Occupy Sandy Emerges As Relief Organization For 21st Century” (Huffington Post)32. So while the nation saw politicians expounding about recovery, those who were on the ground or who cared to follow the media stories about the actual recovery efforts (as opposed to the politicized press conferences of mayors and governors) lost significant faith in the government response and instilled that faith in grassroots organization.
As time went on, many state agencies’ lack of presence in the affected areas meant that their ineffectiveness was compounded. Since almost immediately after the storm, an invaluable knowledge base was being built by volunteers like those with OS. These grassroots groups also extensively utilized outward and inward facing online networks and communications channels, which cached information and relayed it to the appropriate parties. Occupy Sandy had this operational communications infrastructure and the volunteers, cars, relief supplies and local community connections that were needed to do effective disaster relief. The city, state and Federal governmental agencies did not have any of these necessary components. In this circumstance, with a diminished trust from local people and an incentive to work alongside (and utilize the knowledge and resources of) grassroots groups, it made sense that certain representatives from the state would attempt to put on a more conciliatory and humble face than Bloomberg.
A New York Times article about the inadequacy of the city government’s response states that Nazli Parvizi, city’s commissioner for community affairs, “felt effective in a supporting role,” taking a back seat to grassroots initiatives. Parvizi is quoted, “I wasn’t here to change that narrative. I was asking them, ‘What do you need?’”33. Indeed Parvizi and other local level state employees worked closely with and sometimes under the direction of Occupy Sandy. It’s no surprise that on the ground, while trying to organize quick and effective disaster, officials like Parvizi were not in a position to “change” the narrative. While Bloomberg and other more public politicians completely ignored groups like Occupy Sandy and built a narrative of state responsibility and efficiency, workers like Parvizi worked to actually make relief work effective, which necessitated cooperation from grassroots groups.
Just as the effectiveness and timing of response varied with state agencies, the level of cooperation and recognition with grassroots groups varied within different parts of the state. High level politicians served to portray a confident and able government, while lower level workers tried to build relationships on the ground with a needed humility. Yet this variance in response is not representative of multiple frameworks of disaster relief, but rather illuminates different roles played within a single framework. This framework’s essential function is to maintain the legitimacy of the government to multiple audiences.
Sign Outside of the OS Distribution Hub Hosted at the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in Brooklyn
Inside the Distribution Hub at St. Luke and St. Matthew
IV. The Politics of Working Together
This two-faced sort of strategy for maintaining government legitimacy and local involvement in a disaster situation led to conflicting feelings and internal strife for groups like Occupy Sandy. Some felt that interactions like those that organizers had with Parvizi and other government officials compromised the autonomy and radical foundations of Occupy Sandy, while others felt that the urgency of the disaster work necessitated full integration into broader, government run disaster relief networks. Most organizers fell somewhere between these two positions, but the tension threatened to tear the highly effective and fluid organization apart.
The questions of how to interact with state employees and agencies was and is enwrapped in questions surrounding centralization of decision making, messaging development and inter-organizational relations. Given the ad-hoc nature of Occupy Sandy, there was almost no foundational agreements about how to answer these questions, and what legacy there was came from the Occupy Wall Street movement, which struggled deeply with its understanding of how to relate to the state. These questions were discussed hotly in coordination meetings.
In these meetings the question of how explicitly “political” Occupy Sandy should be arose. Many had serious fears about alienating those affected by the storm and disturbing the delicate relationships built with the state and mainstream organizations like the Red Cross. There was an assumption from some that explicitly political and confrontational language and action would qualitatively change the nature of Occupy Sandy, from a disaster response organization to a political action organization. Many OS’ volunteers resisted public protest actions such as one organized on December 15th, which included small marches in the affected areas and a city-wide action in front of Mayor Bloomberg’s house, exclaiming, “FEMA isn’t listening. The Mayor isn’t listening. Where are they?”. These OS participants argued that not only is it wrong to focus on state institutions to provide the kind of relief that is generally done by the Red Cross, but that the public display in and of itself is a distraction from the urgent work that needs to be done in the affected areas.
Others argued that being publicly political and being focused on the immediate relief work should not be considered mutually exclusive, but were, in fact, very compatible. Yotam Marom, an active OS volunteer, made the case in an article published in the early days of the relief efforts that those who work with Occupy Sandy “want to understand the politics behind all of this because they’ve seen the crisis in action. They are ready to stand and fight, and they are excited to envision their task as part of something bigger. We just need to create structures to support that….[we need] more coordinating between different hubs, more unifying the different trainings and processes, more strategizing together about directions for moving forward”34. There was a concerted efforts on the part of many volunteers to push Occupy Sandy in this direction, towards a more unified voice and vision that could speak authoritatively for the movement as an organization that connected the dots between climate change, economic and social inequality and the immediate disaster.
The debates surrounding these issues were very complex and occurred in the late evenings after volunteers had worked upwards of 14 hour days for weeks on end. These questions surrounding the political nature of Occupy Sandy were inextricably linked to questions surrounding the decision making capacity of the organization, questions which in turn were related to questions of autonomy versus centralization in relief coordination. The contention that Occupy Sandy felt as it attempted to transform to meet the ever-changing needs of those affected by Sandy, and to meet its own organizational needs, gets to some of the most central questions that contemporary radical organizers face in any movement building project. There is no way to answer these questions definitively, and there was definitely no way to do it in the heat of the work of Sandy relief, not to mention no way to enforce any loose consensus that did arise.
The inability to articulate, either outwardly or inwardly, a clear understanding of how Occupy Sandy understood and worked with state agencies meant that individual organizers were responsible for making judgement calls about how to relate to agencies and often ended up leveraging their personal relationships with state representatives to get work done. This often led to an atmosphere of confusion, where a government representative would get three different answers and attitudes from three different Occupy Sandy organizers. In many cases this resulted in frustration and a feeling that OS was “unprofessional”. In all cases it meant that Occupy Sandy was meeting the state on the state’s terms, rather than its own
Much of this paper has focused on how disparate the responses of the state are to disasters. The state’s many components operate with their own set agendas, and with varying political motivations, but they do not lack any unifying principles or purposes. The state’s response to Sandy, as unprepared as it was, followed along much more pre-calculated routes than Occupy Sandy. While the MTA, Bloomberg, Nazli Parvizi, Cuomo and National Guardspeople might all have been unprepared to respond to Sandy’s intensity, they were all operating within existing operational frameworks. There were paid employees working under the jurisdiction of an agency which was ultimately designed to maintain some function of the state. Various agencies have some autonomy from the “state” as a whole, but that autonomy is only relative. So while there may be some bickering and contention along the way, there is a certain implicit organizational logic which tends towards the return to a status quo and a maintenance of the legitimacy of the state over other organizational types. Bloomberg and Cuomo may disagree about where relief money should end up, but they both fundamentally agree that the state should be in charge of relief efforts and that the recovery should not fundamentally challenge the capitalist economy.
When Occupy Sandy met the state, whether it was in the streets doing relief work or in a meeting with City officials, there arose a situation where only one side understood itself in relation to the other. Whatever state agency was in question, the representative understood Occupy Sandy as a tool to be utilized to one extent or another. There was never a question about whether Occupy Sandy could be a “legitimate” institution that would be allowed to dictate the terms on which it operated in conjunction with state agencies. Occupy Sandy was either to be brought in, into the “whole community” response or the hierarchical Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster group which represents major non-profits like the Red Cross, or it was to be ostracized. Representatives from the state who acted as mediators, even the most sympathetic like Parvizi, made it clear that Occupy Sandy would have to give up its autonomy if it wanted in.
Meanwhile Occupy Sandy met with the state in a constant existential crisis. Volunteers had their individual convictions (which were often changing quicker than Occupy Sandy itself) about the state, but as representatives of OS, there was no set way to go about negotiating a relationship with “officials”. Individual feelings ran the gamut from an unquestioning faith in state institutions and workers to a severe and dogmatic distrust of everything, including basic resources, that came from the state.
With this confusion the state could do things like leverage its “de-facto” authority in a disaster situation over a disorganized Occupy Sandy. For example, in the heat of some of the most contentious arguments surrounding whether or not to engage in explicit political protest in opposition to elected officials, some OS volunteers claimed that they were told by City Officials that if there was a protest, OS may lose resources that they had managed to secure from the city in delicate negotiations. While it is difficult to extrapolate from a tense disaster situation, it is clear when looking at both the aftermath of Sandy and the DHS report that certain elements within the state know very well what they are doing as they attempt to neutralize and/or co-opt groups like Occupy Sandy.
In retrospect, looking at the DHS report and the actual history of Occupy Sandy and state organized relief efforts, we see that those who organize state responses to disaster see Occupy Sandy and other grassroots groups as both threatening and valuable. It is worth quoting the DHS report again where it states, “as frequency of horizontal group engagements grows, it is increasingly important for unity of effort to build in order to deepen bridges between hierarchical institutions and emergent response groups”35. Occupy Sandy and other grassroots groups are valuable assets to be brought in. As we can see, in the absence of any clear understanding of its own relationship to the state, Occupy Sandy was not able to effectively organize itself to dictate the terms of which it related to the state. This does not mean, however, that groups like OS should attempt to avoid the state altogether.
The fact that the state is the largest single organizing force, in terms of resources and expertise, to respond to a large scale disaster like Hurricane Sandy is acknowledged by state agencies and activists alike. As a report by community organizing groups in New York City states, “Due to the slow and inadequate government response to the needs of public housing residents, community groups were forced to take roles that exceeded their capacity and extended beyond their expertise. While many of these groups did an excellent job, they lacked coordination with government as well as the resources and technical expertise to meet the myriad of residents’ needs”36. Radical disaster relief organization requires doing effective work, from both humanitarian and political perspectives, and this requires an acknowledgment of the state as a (but not the) primary force in disaster response.
We need to understand the state as well, if not better, than it understands us. If we are continually organizing ourselves in an ad-hoc basis to disasters without a more foundational understanding of ourselves in relation to the state, then we will continue to meet the state at a disadvantage, where their sophisticated understandings of the various players in disaster relief, and their de-facto authority status in relief operations will continue to require that we either avoid interacting with the state, or meet with it on its own terms. We should understand, as the state does, that we are an essential resource, with invaluable local knowledge and moral and political authority. This positionality should be leveraged so that we can meet city officials, FEMA workers and elected officials as equals– so that our “compromises” with the state do not require us to lose our radical edge.
It is nearly two years since Sandy struck and activists in New York City created a truly impressive example of radical, horizontal and effective mutual aid. To this day the most comprehensive report on our work is arguably the one created by and for the Department of Homeland Security. Without more comprehensive reflection from both the organizers of OS and outsiders who witnessed the events, we cannot learn from our mistakes and successes. Whether we like it or not, there are forces out there preparing to take advantage of the next disaster to dictate the recovery agenda on their own terms. Whether we like it or not, we have to begin to develop our own terms.